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Why You Eat When You’re Not Hungry

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

Written by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian. Published July 15, 2021. Updated July, 17 2023.


three croissants with sliced almonds and icing sugar and blog title

Indulging in food can sometimes feel irresistible, overpowering our senses and making us reach for it without fully understanding the underlying reasons.


In this enlightening blog post, we delve into the depths of why you eat when you're not hungry, exploring four prominent reasons behind this behavior and providing practical solutions for each. By unraveling these reasons, you can cultivate a sense of liberation and serenity in your relationship with food, paving the way for a healthier and more balanced approach.


4 Key Reasons Behind Eating When You're Not Hungry

1. You Don't recognize hunger and fullness cues

Years of chronic dieting and food restriction can dull our ability to recognize and respond to our body's natural hunger and fullness signals. As a result, we may no longer feel the subtle cues that indicate when we are truly hungry or comfortably satisfied. Instead, we rely on external factors like strict meal timings, rigid food rules, or emotional cues to guide our eating behaviors. Rebuilding your sensitivity to these cues can help you reconnect with your body's innate wisdom and reset your relationship with food.

The FIX: CONSISTENT MEALS & SNACKS

To reestablish a connection with your hunger and fullness signals, it is helpful to create a structured eating routine for a period of two weeks. During this time, aim to have three small meals and two small snacks at regular intervals, regardless of whether you feel hungry or not. This temporary approach helps to make your body's signals more present and noticeable. Once you have established this consistency, you can then rely on these internal cues to guide your eating patterns and honor your body's true needs.

2. Habit and Neurobiology


Understanding the science of habits reveals that they are built on the foundation of reminders, routines, and rewards. As we repeat this sequence over time, our brain forms neural circuits that drive our behaviors.


When it comes to eating, a strong desire to indulge can be linked to our brain's craving for dopamine, a potent pleasure-inducing chemical. Food manufacturers capitalize on this by creating products that perfectly blend sugar, fat, and salt to hit the "bliss point." Consequently, our intense desire to eat may stem from our brain's urge to complete the neural circuit established by these habits.

The FIX: REWIRE

To overcome the influence of neurobiology and habit on your eating behaviors, it's important to disrupt the habit loop and create new neural pathways. Start by identifying the triggers or reminders that prompt your desire to eat when not hungry. This could be certain situations, emotions, or even specific foods. Once you have identified the triggers, focus on introducing alternative routines that can fulfill the reward your brain seeks. Engage in activities that provide a sense of pleasure, relaxation, or accomplishment, such as going for a walk, practicing mindfulness, or pursuing a hobby.


By consciously replacing the old routine with a new, healthier one, you can gradually rewire your brain and break free from the cycle of eating when not hungry.

3. Emotions

In our quest for comfort, food has become a readily available escape to numb even the slightest discomforts, such as boredom. This easy accessibility has led many of us to rely on food as a means to avoid and suppress unpleasant or challenging sensations, diminishing our capacity to sit with them. Instead of embracing the full spectrum of emotions, both positive and negative, we have developed habits to instantly soothe any discomfort that arises.


Identifying emotional eating can be tricky initially, as it manifests subtly but wields great power, often masquerading as genuine hunger. When emotions drive our eating, it tends to strike suddenly, craving specific foods and remains unsatisfied even with a full stomach. Some common emotional triggers include excitement, frustration, anxiety, worry, procrastination, boredom, stress, and loneliness.

The FIX: EMOTIONAL FLEXIBILITY

The key to overcoming emotional eating lies in cultivating emotional flexibility, which involves experiencing the full range of emotions without being overwhelmed or excessively attached to them.


Next time you find yourself reaching for food when not hungry, take a moment to pause and ask yourself if true hunger is driving the urge. If not, perform a body scan and tune into any sensations present in your body. Practice sitting with these sensations for just 90 seconds, as there is a natural chemical process that occurs within this timeframe to process an emotion. Notice where the sensation is located in your body and observe how it changes over the course of those 90 seconds.


Even if you find it challenging to sit with the sensation for the entire duration initially, developing awareness and interrupting the autopilot response will gradually help release the pattern of emotional eating. Through consistent practice, you can strengthen your ability to navigate emotions without automatically turning to food as a coping mechanism.


4. Seeking Pleasure

Recognize that seeking pleasure through food is natural and understandable. However, it's important to expand your sources of pleasure beyond just eating. Sometimes this pleasure and ease food provides is our biggest source daily pleasure and de-stress. Maybe you have a job that is stressful, and a home life that at times can be just as stressful. In this case you may find yourself turning to food, unconsciously, to receive that dose of pleasure from food.

The FIX: SPRINKLE PLEASURE INTO YOUR DAY

Explore other activities and hobbies that bring you joy, relaxation, and a sense of fulfillment. This could include engaging in creative pursuits, spending time in nature, practicing mindfulness or meditation, connecting with loved ones, or engaging in physical activities you enjoy.These don't need to be extraordinary acts. Taking a moment to enjoy the sounds of nature, expressing gratitude or a few moments spent with your pet. When the intention is there your ability to savour and absorb the pleasure amplifies.


By diversifying your sources of pleasure, you can reduce reliance on food as the sole provider of comfort and satisfaction in your life.


Download our free Healthy relationship with food Starter Guide and begin your journey towards a more balanced and positive relationship with food today.

Key takeaways: Why you eat when you're not hungry

In the quest to understand why we eat when we're not physically hungry, this blog explored four key reasons behind this behavior. From not recognizing hunger and fullness cues to seeking pleasure and using food for comfort, understanding these underlying reasons can help us regain control over our eating habits and cultivate a healthier relationship with food.


By understanding these underlying reasons and implementing the suggested strategies, individuals can regain control over their eating habits, develop a healthier relationship with food, and find greater peace and freedom in their lives.


Get support from a registered dietitian

Get the support you need from a registered dietitian to overcome your food challenges and achieve your health goals. Our team of experienced dietitians is here to provide personalized guidance and support tailored to your unique needs.


Contact us today to schedule a consultation and take the first step towards transforming your relationship with food. Book your appointment now and start your journey to a healthier, happier you.


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